Wigan snap at heels of sliding Saints

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The Independent Online
Rugby League

Wigan will go above St Helens in the Stones Super League table if they beat them at Knowsley Road tonight - an outcome that looked highly unlikely when the fortunes of the two old rivals diverged so widely early in the season.

Then, Wigan were the team in turmoil while St Helens cruised on serenely, continuing the good work of their League and Cup double last season.

But Saints have now stumbled into some of the pitfalls that Wigan, with their experience of life at the top, could have told them all about. The cracks have started to show and Wigan, after all that has been said about their own decline, cannot resist a wry smile.

Injuries have been the main problem - and St Helens will be well below strength again today - but there has also been a collective loss of composure. That was evident in the way Saints finished with 11 men in their defeat at Salford on Thursday, but also in the over-the-top reaction from their coach, Shaun McRae.

McRae has been the very model of equanimity during his time in Britain, but over the past couple of weeks the strain has started to show. Wigan and, in particular, their former St Helens coach Eric Hughes, could be excused for saying: "See, it's not that easy being champions."

On the field, at least, there is a new air of stability at Wigan. "We are the best we've been in my time here," said Hughes, "and certainly stronger than when we played St Helens in the Cup.

"Even then, we played them off the park for 40 minutes, but didn't quite have the players to go on with it."

Now, with Nigel Wright and Tony Smith settled into the half-back positions, Wigan do have the players. They are likely to be without Terry O'Connor, who suffered a recurrence of his ankle injury in the victory over Castleford on Friday, but even then the signing of Lee Hansen gives them the back- up they need.

Elsewhere, in a full Bank Holiday programme, Leeds can consolidate their second place in the table. In theory, they are the one side who can catch Bradford, not least because they have still to play them twice. The Rhinos, who play at Castleford today, can prevent the Bulls turning the title into a one-horse race, if that doesn't sound too much like Noah's Ark.

Leeds, have put four players - all aged 21 - on the transfer list. Marcus Vassilakopoulos, Mick Shaw and the twins, David and Anthony Gibbons, the latter three of whom have been on loan to Bramley, can all go for fees ranging from pounds 25,000 to pounds 50,000.

John Ribot, the chief executive of Super League in Australia, is reported there as being ready to quit.

Ribot, the architect of Super League, is said to want to return to club administration, and his departure would make it easier for a reunification with the Australian in time for next season.